To all wondering how the United States could stumble so badly in Afghanistan, information is emerging that should help leaders understand how better to conduct a war.
Don’t outsource the job, for one thing.
Of the $14 trillion spent by the Pentagon since the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the United States, up to half went to for-profit defense contractors, according to a study by Brown University’s Costs of War project and the Center for International Policy.
Released Monday, the study laid out Pentagon dependence on private companies. Authors persuasively argued such moves helped undermine the nation’s war effort. The Defense Department used private contractors to run fuel convoys and feed the troops, but also to train and equip Afghan security forces, according to an Associated Press article on the study.
These are the same forces that gave up largely without a fight as the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan last month, a stunning collapse given the 20-year-investment in training. By contrast, Afghans trained by U.S. special forces — not private contractors — did the bulk of the fighting against the Taliban last month.
Now, study authors say the U.S. needs to examine the role these contractors played. That means looking at everything from Defense Department insistence on the use of Blackhawk helicopters — more complex than Russian equipment and difficult to maintain — to contractors allegedly paying protection dollars to both the Taliban and warlords.
The waste of dollars was bad enough, but the study makes the point that dependence on private contractors undermined the mission.
Look at what happened in the last months of the war. When the withdrawal began earlier this year, contractors outnumbered U.S. troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq. As they left, taking their knowledge with them, Afghan security forces lost the ability to keep helicopters in the air to battle the Taliban.
The U.S. didn’t always fight wars this way. A greater reliance on the private sector began in the run-up to war after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
Then-Vice President Dick Cheney and others argued that using private contractors would result in a trimmer, leaner and more cost-efficient U.S. military. Cheney, of course, was a former CEO of Halliburton, the company that received more than $30 billion by 2008 to establish bases, run them and feed troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to study figures.
Using contractors had another effect. It hid the enormous human cost of war. Some 7,000 military members died in all post-9/11 conflicts, but thousands of contractors — estimates from 4,000 to 8,000, depending on the source — were also killed. Aside from families, though, who knew about the deaths of private citizens?
And that’s the trouble with a war waged by mercenaries.
The nation can forget a war is going on. Other people are bearing the burden of sacrifice. People go about their lives. Congress fights among itself, failing in its duty to oversee foreign excursions. That most serious business of a nation, waging war, becomes an afterthought.
Twenty years later, a president finally determined to pull back. Only then was it clear that the years of war had led not to success, but to ignominious failure — one almost predestined, given early decisions to privatize much of the effort. Providing for the common defense, it seems, cannot be outsourced.